Government-Sanctioned Religious Tolerance in Early Australia

Adrienne T. Chisolm (English 34, 1991)

When the first fleet of English settlers, predominantly convicts, landed in New South Wales in 1788, their numbers included one chaplain representing the Anglican church. Although there is evidence that he was not received too well by the new colonists (the first church he built is said to have been burned down by the congragation), the Church of England was intended to be the established religion, and no others were to be tolerated. Strict intolerance became more and more difficult for the government to encourage, however, as Irish Catholic convicts began to arrive soon after. Catholics were still restricted at the time in England, but the new English statesmen of Australia began to see a necessity, in the interest of public order, for an increase in tolerance. A belief that any and all religion discourages swearing, drunkenness, gambling and other unruly behavior while it promotes hard work and peaceful values became a necessary factor in the change in state policy. It was this change that would lead to government aid for the building of Catholic churches in the colonies, and it was this aid that soon would lead to similar demands from other denominations -- namely, Presbyterians.

Figures on the actual numbers and ratios of represented religions vary; most reports agree, though, that there were few Jews, a larger number of Presbyterians, still many more Catholics and a significantly higher number of Anglicans by the late 1820s. But despite the numerical imbalances, New South Wales was officially, by the 1830s, a state of religious toleration, providing state aid for all denominations in ratio to their followers. The Anglicans still claimed the official established church -- they were not only strong in population, but also rich in land, and they played a significant role in education -- but their true power was weakened considerably. Governor Richard Bourke described the state's "equal encouragement" as a means for promoting unity among citizens and for gaining cooperation from them: "[T]he people of these different persuasions will be united together in one bond of peace, and taught to look up to the Government as their common protector and friend, and . . . thus there will be secured to the State good subjects and to Society good men.' Of course, this mutual respect was expected of and encouraged among the European colonists only. Tolerance of the native Aborigines did not seem to be a consideration of either the settlers or their government. When advocating aid to the Catholic Church in the 1820s, a Governor Brisbane wrote that without religious education and devotion, the Catholics were "bereft of every advantage that can adorn the mind of Man, or characterize the European from the Aboriginese, [and] there will soon remain nothing but the shade to distinguish them."

Cultural differences between the colonizers and the Aborigines seemed insurmountable, and religion was most likely a great factor in the misunderstandings and abuses. Historian C.M.H. Clark writes that "the white man came bearing his civilization as his offering, expecting the aborigine to perceive the great benefits he would receive at its hand, including that benefit of being received into the Church of England, which was believed to contain all that was necessary to salvation." The failure of this plan is described by Clark as having "puzzled" the new Australians, who "remained strangers to [the Aborigines'] religious rites and opinions."


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